Madness and the Poisons We Take

It’s really amazing to me the whole human race hasn’t killed itself off long ago. We seem to have a bit of a death wish, in some ways–playing with substances we don’t know for certain whether they’re safe, adding questionable things to food and drink and working under questionable conditions.

America hasn’t even been around that long, and apparently, some places in the east were so polluted during the Industrial Revolution era that you could find man-made arsenic lakes out there.

Here are a couple of interesting instances of poisoning:

  • The curious case of Jamaica ginger, or ginger Jake. The stuff was a patent medicine made of ginger and booze, so people used it to get around Prohibition laws. Regulators started testing it to make sure it had enough ginger, so bootleggers started adding other things to it that would pass the tests and still be drinkable. Unfortunately, what they added was a neurotoxin: Tricresyl phosphate. TCP has been used as a gasoline additive, apparently.
  • So has TEL, or tetraethyl lead. The Standard Oil Refinery in New Jersey once processed this stuff, which was used to boost octane ratings, apparently. The building quickly became known as the “loony gas building,” because its workers more or less lost their minds after a time. Some of them wandered around confused, others became irritable, and it got to the point where five of them died. Lead is not good for you, and the masks the workers were given did not keep lead out. Their bodies just kept accumulating it. Here’s a wonderful write-up from the Speakeasy Science blog (which I highly recommend): Part I, Part II.

The interesting thing about both cases is how scientists were involved in each instance of poisoning.

Apparently, the scientist who recommended adding TCP to the medicine wasn’t told the stuff was meant for internal consumption. And scientists tried to stop the TEL process too–the stuff had already been banned in Europe and lead was a known hazard.

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